In: Education, For students

Rhina P. Espaillat poem

Jonathan, I feel, indulges that Rhina P. Espaillat poem far more than it deserves. Even granted that the sonnet is apparently part of a longer cycle, which I haven’t read, and which looks like it has a larger thematic focus on storytelling in the abstract, thus potentially relieving the individual poem somewhat of the accusation that the story it tells isn’t interesting in itself, there’s just no excusing the arthritic prosody and trite phrasing, which are clearly not self-consciously intended. If a beginning or intermediate student wrote this poem, I would praise him or her in due measure for the work that had obviously gone into practicing the metrical “scales,” and for fitting the narrative with some competence into a fair approximation of a Shakespearean quatrains-and-couplet syntactic structure, but—especially if it were a more advanced class—I would call the student on the limpness of the language, the cliches, the gratuitous and unjustified show-offiness of the form. Most annoying of all to me is the poem’s complacent comfort with its own snug, smug “literariness,” its embarrassing self-delight in having accomplished such a slight feat: gosh, fitting a whole ghost story into a single sonnet, imagine! And in iambic pentameter too!*

I think what appeals initially to some about New Formalism is the idea that there is this craft, a set of coded practices with whole traditions behind them, that admits the writer into a kind of instant artisanal fraternity in which he or she can escape into the past with all its aesthetic perfumes and shadows. Or whatever. But the point is that it’s a pipedream. And it makes people write really bad poetry. Look, here’s a little experiment. I’m going to give myself 10 minutes to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter. You’ll just have to trust me that I’m keeping to the clock. Ready? I’m starting right now.

If counting feet were all there were to verse,
And time’s old forms could come back home to roost,
We’d all be eating caviar in the hearse,
Unscathed by loss, unfettered, unreduced;
We’d glean the shining foam for pretty prizes
Turned up from the wracks of former wits,
And try on gallant wreathes in different sizes
Till we found the summabitch that really fits.
But history is careless with her darlings,
And grudges them the surfeit of her store,
So that we find ourselves, like wounded starlings,
Bereft of any treasure on the shore.
Thus poetasters disinherited
Compare themselves to mockingbirds instead.

OK, that took me about eight and a half minutes. My point? Simply that a) as awful as this is, I hope it does demonstrate at least a rudimentary appreciation for / facility with “traditional” verse rhythms, showing that I have some ability to judge other’s attempts at same; and b) that once a writer internalizes the iambic habit, it’s not much of a challenge at all to make the language conform to it. The content, of course, is a different story: much of this is pure Carrollian nonsense. But that’s maybe what I’m getting at: the anachronistic connotations of the form itself inevitably impose a whimsical eccentricity on “contemporary” subject matter that comes off either as cloyingly cute or just plain awkward. As a further example, here’s a villanelle I wrote about 12 or 13 years ago:

The bitter pills we all have trouble taking
Replace our symptoms with another pain,
For all along our pain was only faking.

I spent a lot of time in those days making
Excuses not to have to feel the strain
(The bitter pills, we all have trouble taking),

While you were always in the kitchen baking
That bread you had to buy organic grain
For. All along our pain was only faking,

Though frequently your hands were really shaking:
You spilled the stuff you took for your migraine,
The bitter pills. We all have trouble taking

The little ups and downs that come with waking.
I hoped that love was not a thing we’d feign,
For all along, our pain was. “Only faking,”

You laughed, when I believed your heart was breaking.
When passion disappoints us, there remain
The bitter pills we all have trouble taking.
For all along, our pain was only faking.

At the time, I was rather pleased with myself for what I thought were clever enjambments, resourceful ways of reworking syntax, etc. But those formal somersaults are finally ways of evading the emptiness of the domestic scenario being described: whoever this generic couple is (it’s not autobiographical–I never went out with anyone who had migraines or baked organic bread), their little bourgeois psychodrama is beneath anyone’s consideration. And this is what I see generally in “New Formalist” composition: it either attempts to elevate inherently uninteresting material by purely formal means, or it insults by converting important themes into occasions for aesthetic fetishization (the very thought, for example, of a 9/11 poem in pentameter is a grotesque affront to the conscience). Each of these “errors” is the flip side of the other. It is impossible to dissociate “straight” traditional meter from the historical conditions that underwrite it, and thus any attempt to transplant it will bear the scar of violent separation, or–worse–will signal a reactionary adherence to archaic ideologies of aristocratic taste, imperial justification, patriarchal values, etc. This leaves open the possibility of ironic or otherwise self-aware applications of traditional meter, which I’m perfectly willing to entertain.
Just a quick note: it occurs to me that I’ve expressed two different objections to contemporary metrical practice here, perhaps ones that imply a self-contradictory attitude on my part. One objection is the one I’ve just gone through above, that poets who use these forms tend to be unaware of the ideological effect they create, even when (or maybe even especially when) they are handled with skill. The other is that, in my opinion, most “New Formalist” poets do not handle them with skill. So I guess you can just pick one objection or the other or both and just go with it.

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